The bright red saltwater outflow from the Blood Falls — that dapple Antarctica's vast whiteness — has been a mystery since the last 100 years. However, a research team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in collaboration with Colorado College, has finally solved the century-old mystery of the well-known red waterfall in Antarctica.
Blood Falls is located at the foot of Antarctica's Taylor Glacier and flows onto the surface of West Lake Bonney located in the Taylor Valley, which is a part of McMurdo Dry Valleys situated in East Antarctica.
Antarctica's Blood Falls
For the unfamiliar, Blood Falls is not exactly a waterfall but more of a seepage that emerges from the small fissures in the Taylor Glacier's ice cascades. The saltwater outflow is rich in iron-oxide and lends the blood red color to the liquid once the water comes into contact with atmospheric air.
Australian geologist Griffith Taylor is credited with the discovery of the Blood Falls. As he was the first person to explore the region, the Taylor glacier was named in his honor. Since the discovery of the Blood Falls in 1911, many theories have emerged which attempt to explain the source of the water and its unusual color. The most popular theory is that the presence of red algae in the liquid lends the water its hue.
Scientists Solve 100-Year Old Antarctica Blood Falls Mystery: How?
The National Science Foundation funded the new study and researchers found new evidence, which linked the source of Blood Falls to a salt water reservoir. The researchers assume that this reservoir could have been trapped underneath the Taylor Glacier for over a million years. The team found a 300-foot-passageway, which the saltwater traverses from beneath the glacier to reach the surface.
This path has remained unidentified since the outflow was first discovered. The researchers used a radar to perceive the saltwater that surfaced as the Blood Falls.
"The salts in the brine made this discovery possible by amplifying contrast with the fresh glacier ice," lead author of the study Jessica Badgeley revealed .
Using radio-echo sounding, Badgeley and her team monitored and tracked the brine. This technique involves the radar method, which uses two types of antennas. The first antenna is used to send out electrical pulses and the second picks up the signals from the atmosphere.
Co-author of the study Christina Carr further explained that the team moved the antennae around the glacier in grid-like patterns to see what was beneath the glacier's ice. Apart from discovering the mysterious path the brine deployed to feed the Blood Falls, the researchers made another important breakthrough.
They discovered that water can stay in its liquid form inside an extremely cold glacier. This was earlier believed to be impossible. Glaciologist Erin Pettit shared that though the process may sound contradictory, the heat water releases while freezing melts the surrounding colder ice. The emanated heat — along with the salty water's low freezing temperature — helps water remain in its liquid form and make its movement possible.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Glaciology on Monday, April 24.